“Write hard and clear about what hurts”
Advice for writers abounds. Especially online. It’s grand. But I have my doubts as to whether it makes a difference. Even pithy nuggets of truth from literary giants.
Three years ago, finally spurred into action, I attended an Arvon course at Totleigh Barton – Starting to Write Fiction. At the beginning of the week, I wrote a short story of which I was particularly proud. I submitted it for discussion with the tutors, Nikita Lalwani and Sam North, hoping they would see in it the great genius I believed was there, declare it perfect and insist I send it to agents, drumming their fingers on empty desks, awaiting my submission.
“It feels like you’re skirting the issue,” Nikita told me (I heard the agents stop drumming their fingers). She continued that it didn’t quite feel authentic, as though I was shying away from the real story, and as a result the story did not read well.
Nikita was right. I did have another story in my head. But it wasn’t one I had felt comfortable committing to paper. It wasn’t one I considered readers would be interested in. I wasn’t even sure I could write this story down, and if I could, whether I ought to. However, I respected her comments, and thinking on them later, I sat down to write at the desk in my bedroom for the week, this time to write the story buzzing at the back of my head and that I had been swatting aside for months.
At that desk, over the course of a couple of hours, I wrote a thousand words of fiction that were truer than anything I’d written before. It was painful, and I was torn, even as I was writing, as to whether I believed words could convey what I was aiming for them. But I realised as I read it back, the story I had written contained – for me at least – a truth.
It was one event in a week crammed with extraordinary events that have continued to shape my writing practice. And it says something about the atmosphere the tutors engendered – I was challenged, nurtured and supported in equal measure – that I felt confident to take that creative leap.
When I returned home, I put the story to one side, unsure whether or not I should take it any further. But when I started MMU’s online MA in Creative Writing that September, I found this story contained, within it, the kernel of the novel I wanted to write.
Once I’d committed to finishing the novel, there were a couple of things that kept me on course. The first was tracking my writing through the Write-Track app, run by former Arvon centre director, Bec Evans, and Chris Smith. Each day I completed my 500 word target, I tracked it against my goal of completing the novel, and it kept me going during the late evenings when all I wanted to do was switch off.
The second was the support and guidance I was given on the MMU course, both from the other writers in my online group and from my tutor, author Nicholas Royle. His combination of questioning, discussion of the work in progress, and exceptionally well-chosen reading suggestions seemed to come at just the right time to help get me through that next 500 words, and to keep the story unfolding.
I could reasonably expect I’d complete the novel, given the time I put in and the support I received. What I couldn’t have expected was that, following my MA submission, Nicholas, also a commissioning editor, would approach me about releasing the novel through the excellent Salt Publishing. I was floored.
And almost three years after I started, I’m thrilled I can say The Many will hit the shelves on 15 June 2016 and that the first shoots of my second novel are just now starting to show themselves.
Hemingway (with whose quote I started this piece) was right. I needed to write hard and clear about what hurts. But it took much more than pithy advice to get me there; it took the guidance and expertise of practicing authors and the support of a community of writers to help me to understand it. My time at Totleigh Barton was the starting point for something that’s gone far beyond what I could have hoped. And I’ll be back. Sometime soon.
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